Conference Vienna, part II – customs, Kant and quantum mechanics


When I had exchanged email addresses with the Japanese girl and we had said goodbye to each other, our wheelchairs were pushed off by one of the airport’s employees. With great dexterity he steered both wheelchairs at the same time to our next stop: customs. The customs check is one of the most unpredictable parts of a journey in a wheelchair. Sometimes the check is very thorough: the douaniers check every inch of the wheelchair; frisk me while I remain seated and even swab the wheelchair’s tires for explosive residue. At other times merely seeing the wheelchair is enough to just let me pass and wishing me a pleasant journey. The only constancy that I can detect is that never once have they checked the tubes in the frame of my wheelchair – I wonder what could fit in there.

When we had passed customs the wheelchair pusher dropped me off before the gate from which my plane was to leave. I was lucky, I thought, because the gate was straightly opposite from a coffee bar, so I wouldn’t have to walk very far for my ‘daily worship of the black gold’. Neither were the toilets very far from my gate. I sat down and made myself comfortable. Out of my bag I took a sandwich and the book I wanted to read. To get into the spirit of the conference I had chosen a German book on Kantianism. At the conference I was going to give a talk on something I’ve been working on the past few years. I’ve been working on the role of Kant’s philosophy in modern philosophy of physics. Many physicists see little value in philosophical systems, no matter how well thought-out, of over two centuries old. At the other extreme there are those who believe that modern physics, and particularly quantum mechanics, present philosophers and physicists alike with problems that can only be resolved within a Kantian approach.

Looking up from my book, rather sleepily, I noticed on the view screen that the regular boarding was to be preceded by what they call ‘priority boarding’. People with babies or other disabilities or people who are willing to pay for priority boarding are allowed to board the airplane before the horde of regular passengers. Since I fall in the category of people with disabilities I’m allowed to make use of priority boarding.

By the time the actual boarding of the airplane begins I’m not in a wheelchair anymore, and as long as I’m not walking I don’t really look disabled so I always try to make sure that the people behind the boarding-counter see me walk up to them so that they’ll allow me to ‘board with priority’.

When I walked up to the counter to tell the lady behind it that I wanted to make use of priority boarding she had been very busy with a conversation up until that moment and hence had not seen me walking up to her desk. So when I asked her whether it be possible to make use of priority boarding I could hear her starting a sentence “but why do you need…” As I was quickly trying to think of a way to convince her of my disability (should I show her the scar on the back of my head, which was due to the latest brain surgery I’d had?) I almost fell over backwards. When I had regained my balance the lady behind the counter was a lot more willing to accept that I belong in the disability priority class.

The stewardess behind the counter, made anxious by her experience, now wanted me to board the plane with extra priority – even over the other priority passengers (she was probably afraid that I would fall). Once in the plane I could relax: “if anything goes wrong now it’s not my fault” I thought. I always like flying because on a flight you can read or work without being disturbed. But not only that. Not only without being disturbed but also without the possibility of distracting yourself with Google or Facebook or what-have-you: you can sort of force yourself to do the work that you have taken with you. For most people this strategy will not work because it will only make them stare out of the window of the airplane. For me the situation is somewhat different because I have so much double vision (because of the spasticity of the muscles moving my left eye) that staring out the window while actually seeing things requires a lot more effort than reading. For me the strategy works perfectly: often I look forward to a flight for weeks because I have already decided upon what to read.

About fbenedictus

Philosopher of physics at Amsterdam University College and Utrecht University, managing editor for Foundations of Physics and international paraclimbing athlete
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